In a vicious campaign year, apologies are in the air


Former White House Chief of Staff John Sununu, right, jokes with GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, in Concord, N.H., on Oct. 24, 2011. Sununu apologized two week ago for suggesting President Obama was un-American, adding his name to the list of political elite who have recanted inflammatory statements in recent months. (Jim Cole/AP)

These days, politics means always having to say you’re sorry.

At least that’s how it seems in an election year when petty insults, immature taunts and vicious attacks are distributed with reckless abandon, then taken back almost as quickly.

Though apologies have long been a part of Washington’s political discourse, there has been a recent rush of groveling by both political parties as a 2012 campaign defined by the smallness of the day-to-day debate heads into the homestretch.

In the past two weeks alone, the Democratic National Committee apologized to Ann Romney over a television ad that mocked her ownership of an Olympic dressage horse; Republican operative John Sununu apologized for suggesting that President Obama was un-American; Obama’s communications director apologized to a conservative writer Charles Krauthammer for a blog post attacking one of his columns; Mitt Romney’s traveling press secretary, Rick Gorka, apologized for telling reporters to “kiss my a--” during a trip overseas; and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee apologized to conservative casino magnate Sheldon Adelson for falsely implying that he knew of prostitution at one of his casinos in Macau.

“Frankly, I made a mistake,” Sununu said on July 17 after telling reporters in a conference call arranged by the Romney campaign that he wished Obama “would learn how to be an American.”

Sununu, the former chief of staff to President George H.W. Bush, added: “I shouldn’t have used those words. And I apologize for using those words.”

A day later, it was the Democrats’ turn to say sorry. As the Olympics were about to get underway in London, the DNC pulled its offending dressage-related ad off the airwaves after Ann Romney said the family’s horse was used to help in her therapy for multiple sclerosis.

“Our use of the Romneys’ dressage horse was not meant to offend Mrs. Romney in any way, and we regret it if it did,” DNC spokesman Brad Woodhouse told ABC News.

But does the string of mea culpas reflect a sudden surge of self-policing by the nation’s political class, who are so often accused of failing to hold themselves accountable for their conduct?

Or is this wave simply the fallout of the new social media climate, where rapid-fire insults have become the norm and have led to a new spate of unvarnished — and often regrettable — reactions in the moment?

“In every campaign cycle, you have a new wave of amateurs with their hands on live ammunition,” said Dan Hazelwood, a Republican political consultant from Alexandria. These operatives “vomit forth whatever idea they have without self-reflection.”

He added that “the social media world, the Internet in particular, is assaulting. . . . When you inject the lack of decorum of the Internet with passionate emotional issues like politics, you have stuff that just spins out of control.”

Take, for example, the politically tense moments surrounding the Supreme Court’s June 28 ruling that upheld Obama’s landmark health-care reform law. With both sides hoping to score political points that would resonate on the campaign trail, operatives were itching to declare victory.

“it’s constitutional. B----es,” DNC Executive Director Patrick Gaspard fired off in a Twitter message. The victory celebration quickly backfired when Gaspard's Republican adversaries savaged him in a barrage of counter tweets.

Gaspard was back on Twitter a short time later, digital hat firmly in hand.

“I let my scotus excitement get the better of me,” he wrote, using the shortened form of Supreme Court of the United States. “In all seriousness, this is an important moment in improving the lives of all Americans.”

Gaspard has not tweeted since then. A message left for him at DNC headquarters was not returned Friday.

Mark Bergman, a Democratic strategist, said that campaigns are struggling to deal with a “minute-to-minute” news cycle in which each side feels pressure to “fill the void” for reporters assigned to produce nonstop copy.

“Campaigns, just like everyone else, are trying to figure out how the quickness of campaigning has changed,” Bergman said. “This is rapidly evolving. Look at the 2000 cycle, just over 10 years ago, when the idea that you had a Web site was still revolutionary.”

It was the White House’s blog that got Obama’s fiery communications director Dan Pfeiffer in trouble last week. Pfeiffer was eager to fight back against suggestions by Romney, who had traveled to London, that Obama had, upon taking office, returned a bust of Winston Churchill to the British Embassy out of “antipathy towards the British,” as Pfeiffer put it.

When Krauthammer repeated the anecdote in a column, Pfeiffer pounced, writing in a blog he titled a “Fact Check” that the assertion was “100% false. The bust still in the White House. In the Residence. Outside the Treaty Room.” Pfeiffer included a photo of Obama showing off the bust to British Prime Minister David Cameron in 2010.

Except that it turned out there were two busts of Churchill; the second was an identical copy loaned by former Prime Minister Tony Blair to former President George W. Bush when the original was being cleaned. Indeed, Obama had returned the copy.

Pfeiffer followed up with an update explaining the confusion. But the next day, after Krauthammer berated him in another column, Pfeiffer sent him an apology note and posted a copy on the White House Web site at Krauthammer’s urging.

“I take your criticism seriously and you are correct that you are owed an apology,” Pfeiffer wrote. “A better understanding of the facts on my part and a couple of deep breaths at the outset would have prevented this situation.”

Andrew Rasiej, the founder of Personal Democracy Media, which examines the nexus between politics and technology, said that the campaigns are more able to manipulate the media with the digital tools of the modern era. But that has led both parties to bend the truth to fit their narratives.

“It’s appalling the way both sides are cutting speeches and videos to make their points,” he said. “When we were young, we were taught not to believe everything we read. With social media, don’t believe everything you read times 10.”

Pfeiffer could take some solace this week when Romney’s own spokesman, Rick Gorka, stuck his foot in his mouth the old-fashioned way — by losing his temper in front of reporters. As a pack of journalists tried to shout questions to Romney after the presumptive GOP nominee finished a visit to the Polish Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Warsaw, the spokesman lost his cool.

“Kiss my a--! This is a holy site for the Polish people,” Gorka responded angrily. “Show some respect.”

Romney, whose book “No Apology: The Case for American Greatness” contends that Obama has kowtowed to foreign leaders, has pledged to no longer apologize on the world stage.

The same was not true for his spokesman, who called two reporters later that day to make amends for his outburst. He is planning a break from campaign travel after the incident.

David Nakamura covers the White House. He has previously covered sports, education and city government and reported from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Japan.
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